Free Will: On Muir and Public Lands

My Public Lands Magazine, Summer 2014
Courtesy of Jeff Fontana
The nation’s public lands, and broader environmental protection initiatives, are under distress from the current administration. Only a few days in, Trump and company might want to read the workings of famed naturalist John Muir if they are to understand the value of the natural world.


The delight John Muir had exhaustively climbing up a sequoia tree in northern California would have been enough to part the clouds on that stormy day.

Muir, the famed naturalist of the late 20th century, advantaged himself by tackling his outdoor necessities in immersive, full-bodied experiences. His journey’s into dense forests were often done with the bare minimum in supplies, enough bread to sustain himself for the allotted time, and a penchant for danger.

Much of what we know about Muir is through his own lens. A fervent, detailed cataloger, it was during seemingly devilish times where Muir would write the most in his journal, allowing himself the pleasure of remembering these bouts with insanity. And for us, this means the opportunity to glimpse at his life, if only from afar.

One day, amidst a particularly powerful storm ravaging the California wilderness, an emboldened Muir set out from underneath the comfort of a roofed-in settlement to the untethered beauty of the wild. As he would tell you in his journal, the majesty of ferocious, gale force winds were enough to steer most able bodied souls away. But Muir took it upon himself to expand his experience, face the immensity of the downpour and meditate on its offerings.

So he climbed, and climbed high, up to the canopy of the mighty sequoia, his brimming heart at peace despite the tumultuous conditions. The pelting rain did not stop as he climbed, hand over hand, gripping the scuffed up bark like a brown bear. Not even the swaying tree, which was set to tip over and snap in half like a feeble twig, dismayed him.

In and amongst the ravage, Muir found happiness. A king seated upon his throne. Later, he would write about his inspirations on this day.

Speaking on what motivated him to seek enjoyment from that day, Muir wrote, “For on such occasions, Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.”

Unbeknownst to Muir at the time, his work as a fearless explorer and ardent student of introspection set off a generation that, to this day, seeks solace in perhaps the most inappropriate of times and places, just to feel something beyond the ordinary. Nature, as Muir saw, bouldered through the passivity of life and gave intrinsic meaning to those in search of it.

Muir also tested the boundaries of what was humanly possible, with luck being one of his better friends out there in the wilderness. When reading through his works, it is obvious that while we can draw a lot from his life, it must be taken in stride. Indeed, Muir saw very few limits whilst on climbing and hiking escapades, but his devotion to the life is what afforded him the ability to exceed the limit.

His candid thoughts on nature, as well as the bounty of those who followed his trail, come to mind during this period of political apprehension. With Donald Trump, a plump fixture of entropy, now seated firmly in the Oval Office, fear over the state of our natural lands – the same lands Muir and others have reveled in – swirls amongst conservationists and environmental thinkers alike.

Little is known about the private stances Trump holds dear to his heart. His public persona is but a manifestation of his unsatisfied ego, while private Trump might wear a different demeanor. Unbelievably, he has told conservationists and auto executives alike that he is an “environmentalist.” Conversely, the few days he has been in office have not been good news for our environmental protection and research agencies. A stranglehold now aggressively cusps our scientists and policy makers, and those ensuring we don’t completely destroy this planet.

As it pertains to our public lands, Trump’s view is, at the very least, confusing.

That he wants to allow for unregulated extraction of resources from the sites of national monuments, national forests and national parks, while simultaneously protecting these lands scratches the heads of many. Speaking to both conservation experts and lawmakers on the issue, it appears as though a firm stance has not matriculated for the President — an indeterminate fate for our public lands hovering like the morning fog of a Redwood forest.

There is, though, a bevy of republican support who have advocated for the dismantling of our public lands. A grip on both the house and senate can allow for conservative ideology to appropriate these places away from the longstanding entities that serve to protect them, like the Park Service and, and more broadly, The Bureau of Land Management.

And now, a bill is circulating in the House of Reps. that will allow the transfer of public lands to state agencies. Appearing as a small, nuanced but inconsequential provision, many environmentalists fear that the passage of this legal jargon will allow for a massive sell-off of these lands, putting their fate in the hands of extractors.

Depending on Trump’s political leanings at the time, he might bar any destructive means of land exploitation from happening on the country’s public lands. Such an occurrence, however, is a markedly different stance from the party that empowered him, so should conservationists be biting their nails right now? When you consider the volatility we’ve already witnessed from the president, nothing is impossible.

So the majority of us sit here and wait in regards to our environmental institutions, hoping for the immediate release of their beleaguering asphyxiation.

And we do so in regard to the nation’s amazing labyrinth of public lands protectors and upkeepers, in respect to the hikers and campers as well. For many, serenity awaits them, in the form of canyons, forests, caves, and shorelines. In what is now Yosemite National Park, one of the first designated public lands, Muir struck gold — climbing trees, facing nature head on, musing on the wonders right before his very eyes. The legacy of his revelry, countless others and the future admirers is on the precipice.

If Trump is to understand the importance of such places, he need not climb trees nor face peril directly like John Muir did years ago. Through the writings and lessons of Muir, there is a deeper meaning to why such places should be protected and not destroyed.

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